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Louise Bourgeois: “Pain is the business I am in”

Ninety-eight-year-old French artist Louise Bourgeois died in New York on May 31, as some of her work was being shown at Berlin's Double Sexus exhibition – billed as the “last exhibition led by the artist herself”.

Image for Louise Bourgeois:
“Louise Bourgeois”, 1982, by Robert Mapplethorpe © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Ninety-eight-year-old French artist Louise Bourgeois died in New York on May 31, just as some of her work was being shown at the Double Sexus exhibition in Berlin (now scheduled to run until August 15) – billed as the “last exhibition led by the artist herself”.

For over 60 years, Bourgeois made often sexually explicit works which aggressively attack the objectification of the female body, traditional sexual roles and gender relationships. Notoriously, her art was inspired by her close relationship with her mother and discomfort with her father’s infidelities during her childhood.

Bourgeois’ work examined the body as the site of human suffering. She focused particularly on the female, bound to nurture in one corner and sexually service in another. A psychosis of skins, like the materials Bourgeois used: steel and stone, latex or cloth. “The subject of pain is the business I am in,” she said. “To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering.”

But in an industry built on death, pain and suffering are secondary assets. Following the news of her death, art institutions began staking their claims on Bourgeois’ legacy. The Italian Vedova Foundation claimed, in Frieze, that its show Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works (opening June 4 in Venice) was the last exhibition Bourgeois was actively involved in. Which left Berlin’s Sammlung Schaf-Gerstenberg on the back foot, until the message on June 1: “Louise Bourgeois dead at 98: Double Sexus the last exhibition led by the artist herself.”

Bourgeois’ sky-scraping steel spiders and grotesquely distorted sculptures and drawings of severed body parts won her international recognition of one of the twentieth century’s most important female artists. Her sculptures have been displayed at the Guggenheim, Tate Modern and Centre Pompidou.

Born in Paris, Bourgeois studied painting and art in France, but it was only in the 1940s, after marrying American art critic Robert Goldwater and moving to New York City, that she began to work on the subject matter which defined her career.

At Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, Double Sexus builds a conversation between sculptures and drawings by Bourgeois and the deceased Hans Bellmer, a Silesian-born artist outlawed by the Nazis. Both used the body as subject matter, abstracting its form in their use of materials. Bellmer’s works show sexual fantasies based on pubescent dolls, sculptures that are collections of ball-jointed genitals on an orbicular torso – a sex machine of undetermined age and gender, or sex made flesh from which the ‘body’ has been cut away. As both artists spent their careers thematizing problematic relationships between genders, it’s surprising how felicitous the conversation is: Double Sexus is not so much the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella as the coupling of two icons of erotic art on the public altar – with the sacred rites blessed by the spirit of Henry Miller.

Although one-time Parisians Bellmer and Bourgeois both lived in the City of Lights until 1938, the two never met in person. The exhibition brings together work from a number of private collections: 70 sculptures and drawings of melting bodies and limbless escapades, including Bellmer’s original illustrations from Georges Bataille’s deviant handbook, The Story of the Eye. The sketches, which look like melted anatomy illustrations from a nineteenth century textbook, complement Bourgeois’ melted, multi-breasted and amputated figures.

In a well-known photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe used in Double Sexus’ press material (see left), Bourgeois appears with a wicked grin and a giant disembodied latex phallus (“Fillette”, 1968) tucked under her arm. Dissecting the male was a theme of her work. “The Destruction of the Father”, a recessed altar of male protuberances made out of latex, was based on a childhood fantasy: one day, the father would be dismembered and eaten on the dining table he tyrannized. Women, meanwhile, were bent out of shape or twisted like the threads of the giant spider sculptures (“Maman”) devoted to her mother. When Bourgeois dreamed of killing her father’s mistress, it was by twisting her neck.

Bourgeois’ work did not really achieve recognition until a 1982 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, for which the Mapplethorpe photograph was taken. She died of a heart attack at the Beth Israel Medical Center, New York, on Monday, May 31.

HANS BELLMER – LOUISE BOURGEOIS: DOUBLE SEXUS | Through August 15. For more information, visit www.doublesexus.org